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AN UNEXPECTED ANNOUNCEMENT
"Ladies and gentlemen, Firebombers Incorporated is on the verge of
A great hush fell over the stockholder's meeting as Joe's words sank in. Joseph Talon, multi-billionaire, corporate icon, and the founder of Firebombers Incorporated had calculated his words to have precisely this impact. His audience was stunned. The world's premier privately-owned firefighting company, which he had founded several years before, was now fighting for its existence and Joe had just sent a wake-up call to its stockholders and investors.
"How could this be?", asked one of the attendees. "I thought that Firebombers Incorporated had sales that were flat, but not dropping".
"Things have changed radically with the rise in oil prices", Joe replied. "Fuel costs for the planes and ground equipment have shot up substantially since last year. We had estimated a much greater profit margin when fighting fires with the lower fuel prices, and we had hoped sales of our firefighting products would continue unabated, as they had in the past. The worsening economy hasn't helped either. Unfortunately, several factors combined to spike our forecasts.
"First, the fuel costs went up, and with them, the cost of operating so many pieces of equipment. Transport planes don't get 30 miles to the gallon, nor, for that matter, do the firetrucks, personnel carriers, and bulldozers. Profitability has been impacted as a result. We have barely broken even on the last couple of campaign fires.
"Secondly, as a result of our success in selling our products and services to anyone who had need, a number of fire departments no longer need our help as much. My decision to license other companies to manufacture some of our products for sale has undercut our business. We weren't able to manufacture BC-2000 fire retardant fast enough to keep up with demand. Bergway Chemical was adding capacity, running three shifts a day, and still couldn't keep up in the early days. For humanitarian reasons, I felt it was necessary to license other manufacturers to produce our retardant so that anyone who needed it could get it. My conscience wouldn't allow me to put profits before the welfare of people who were threatened by wildfires. After all, this organization was founded on the premise that we would try to save lives, and I felt this was part of that equation. The upshot is that we only get a fraction of the income from our products that might have otherwise been possible because we have to retain a competitive price in order to stay marketable. Overseas competitors can manufacture firefighting products we developed for substantially less with the combination of cheap labor and government-subsidized factories.
"Add to this the fact that, with the bad economy we've been facing since 2001, fire departments have had to put off buying high-tech products due to shrinking budgets, and there aren't as many organizations interested in buying what amounts to luxury items.
"And finally, the projections of sales of our heavy equipment were overblown, to say the least. As some of my critics pointed out at our first public presentations, ours is not the cheapest way to fight a fire. Firefighting organizations are strapped for cash as it is, and to ask them to buy equipment that is twice as expensive, even though the capability of that equipment may be four times greater than anything comparable, they can't justify the cost. We are not selling to the U.S. Defense Department. These are state, county, and municipal fire departments that have to fight for every scrap of funding they get. Even though they agree that our products are better, they can't afford them". Joe glanced at the faces in the room. Their expressions varied, some showing anger, some fear, and even expectation, but mostly just disbelief.
"But we've had record numbers of fires for the past two years", a woman in the front row protested. "Surely Firebombers Incorporated showed a profit from those fires".
"They were the only thing that prevented me from making this announcement sooner", Joe replied. "They kept the organization afloat while they lasted, but the season is over now. We barely break even during the fire season. Sales of firefighting products are the chief profit-makers. But we still have payrolls to meet, maintenance to perform, and training to do. The problem is, there won't be any business now for another four to six months. In the meantime, how do we pay for all of this infrastructure?"
"Are you going to disband the organization?", one of the men asked anxiously.
"Not as of yet", Joe replied. "I plan to look at alternatives to our primary firefighting business. Several of the independent firefighting organizations use their aircraft for hauling cargo in the off-season. I'm hoping that we might be able to at least pay the rent in the off-season and during slow fire seasons. For now, we will be continuing to explore other markets where our products and services might be useful".
"Does this mean you will be looking overseas for business?", asked a woman in the second row.
"We have considered foreign markets, yes", replied Joe. "After all, the U.S. is not the only place that has fires. Many parts of the world consider their forests to be a valuable national resource, more so than in the U.S. They might be willing to pay top dollar to limit the damage from forest fires.
"In any event, even though we are at the brink of bankruptcy, I have yet to file for Chapter 11 protection. For the moment, I will continue to support Firebombers Incorporated financially with my own money so that the company remains solvent. If, however, I can't find a worthwhile source of capital, I will, regrettably, have to liquidate the operation. That information is confidential, and I must ask you all to keep this to yourselves". Joe looked around the room at his audience, gauging the mood and determining that he had achieved his objective. "Thank you all for coming. Hopefully, the next time we meet, I will have better news to share with you all. Good night and God bless".
"Well, Jerry, what was your impression? Do you think I put them in the right frame of mind?", Joe asked his second-in-command, Jerry Porter.
"I would estimate that they are ripe for the announcement of your little venture down south", Jerry replied.
"Yes, well, let's hope my little venture down south is lucrative enough to make it worth our while".
"The tentative agreement is most generous, you must admit".
"Well, I guess with all the problems San Pietro has had with drug traffic, they would welcome something that could safeguard their only major source of legal income - the hardwood forests".
Jerry looked out the window of the speeding limousine at the passing city lights before speaking again. "Sometimes it is hard for me to imagine living in a country that is so dangerous. I remember our initial fact-finding mission to the capital city, San Pasqual. Everyone who could afford one had a bodyguard with a sawed-off shotgun as an escort. That is no way to have to live".
"Yeah, and the interesting fact about a sawed-off shotgun is that the scatter from one of those is meant to pepper a large area. That means they aren't protecting their bosses from the lone assassin, they're planning on taking out a whole bunch of guys at once. It also means that they don't care one whit about who else gets caught in the crossfire - they could clean a sidewalk off with a couple of blasts from one of those things!"
"Life is exceedingly cheap there, it seems. Are you certain that it is safe enough for us to go there?", Jerry asked as he turned back to face Joe.
"Let's just say I'm making some changes as insurance for us in case things go bad in a hurry", Joe replied enigmatically.
"I only hope we will not have to resort to it", Jerry said. "What do you plan to say at the executive staff meeting tomorrow?"
"The probability that I will is pretty low, so I'll lay everything out on the table and try to minimize the danger aspect. No need to scare the staff needlessly. I figure we're mobile enough an organization that we can pull out of the country in a hurry if need be. No need to wait in a crowded airport for a charter flight north when you bring your own planes. There has to be some advantage to paying such high gas and repair bills for this outfit", Joe chuckled.
The staff meeting the following day got underway at 2 PM. Joe led off with his announcement.
"Gentlemen, we are about to embark on an important campaign. Whereas we have fought fires exclusively in the United States for the past several years, I plan to take the organization international when the fire season concludes this autumn.
"Firebombers Incorporated has been retained by the new government in the Central American country of San Pietro. President Torres has asked that we bring the entire organization south to be his guests in the capital city of San Pasqual for the ensuing fire season. I understand the accommodations will be five-star quality, both for my staff and also for the firefighters, air crews, and ground personnel".
Zack Dobson, the Firebombers Incorporated Fire Boss let out a low whistle at the announcement. "That's going to cost them a pretty penny if they plan to put all of us up in hotels. I'm guessing that they are paying our way there, right Joe?"
"Absolutely! Food, drink, accommodations, transit costs to and from San Pietro, the works! I guess they want us to spread the word about how well they treat their guests. They don't have much tourism there these days, so a little good will, not to mention plush accommodations, can go a long way toward calming potential tourists' fears and opening up another source of income".
"Yeah, I've heard about one of their sources of income", Pieter Van Vrees, the air-wing commander, added with a look of disgust. "Drugs. I guess they've had bumper crops of cocaine coming out of there in years past".
"They have in the past", agreed Joe. "That all changed with the new administration. Now the government is trying to wean the population away from the drug trade and into some more legitimate commodities, like wood products. They have some of the largest stands of rare hardwoods in the world. The forests suffered badly under past administrations who turned a blind eye to both druglords and legitimate farmers using slash-and-burn to clear the trees for their crops. If the government can protect and expand those forests, they might be able to get this drug-monkey off their backs once and for all. That's where we come in".
"Keeping farmers and the druglords from burning down the forests to make more room for their 'crops'?", asked Abner Hollis, the Air Boss.
"Just fires started by the farmers and natural causes", Joe replied.
"What about the druglords?", asked Dave Albrecht, the technical whiz of the organization. "We aren't planning to go into areas where folks are going to shoot at us, are we?"
Jerry shot a glance at Joe, who appeared unfazed by the question. "Of course not", Joe replied evenly. "We have it in the contract that we only fight fires in areas where the army has firm control. President Torres has given his word that we will not go in harm's way. After all, why risk our lives when he's trying to show how safe his country is for tourists?"
"Let's hope his army has a real firm hold on the areas we're going into", said Zack. "I still don't like flying that much, and the thought of some bozo with a SAM launcher pointed my direction doesn't exactly make me all warm and fuzzy inside".
"I've checked with our State Department and they assure me that the government is stamping out the last organized resistance offered by the druglords", Joe said. "I doubt there will be enough druggies left to even find by the time we get there. And like I was telling Jerry last night, at the first sign of trouble, we vamoose. That's one advantage to having everybody flown in on our own planes. We can fly them right out again on a moment's notice".
"It's still a couple of weeks before most of our military reservists return from the field", said Zack. "I can see why you pulled some strings to get them all rotated through now, Joe. Looks like we won't be here for the next rotation cycle".
"That was the plan", Joe replied. "I think we should be ready to move south in about six weeks. Hopefully, the Palomar fire will be wrapped up by then".
"I think it will be", Pieter stated confidently. "High winds that first couple of weeks grounded everything but the Ospreys and the choppers, but now that the winds have died down, we've got it 90% contained. Barring an increase in wind, I don't think it will take more than a few days tops to finish it off. I was planning to go down for a look-see. Care to come along?"
"Depends. Is Zack coming?"
"Reluctantly", Zack replied.
Pieter smiled crookedly and began shaking his head. "All these years we've been flying to fires with no accidents, and you still get edgy! I just don't get it".
"Well, we've all got our hang-ups, Pieter", Zack replied quietly. "And this one is mine".
"I wish that was the only thing that made me edgy", said Joe. "Okay, Pieter. What say we fly south for a snap inspection. That should wake a few folks up".